Serious news organizations often run stories that have no impact on world affairs but merely showcase some of the zany things happening in far-flung corners of the earth. It’s fun to read about the man who was forced to marry a goat in Sudan — a somewhat tragic story since his goat-wife apparently died soon after when she choked on a piece of plastic — but when a Western media organization reports on the odd happenings in parts of the developing world, is there an implicit moral judgment?
India with its vast rural population is a source for many of these stories. Recently the BBC ran an article entitled “Man 'marries' dog to beat curse.” As promised, it celebrates the marriage of one P Selvakumar, a 33-year-old man, to a dog called Selvi in a village in Tamil Nadu. The marriage is intended to cure the groom of paralysis, which the villagers believe has resulted from his having killed dogs. And lest we forget, the Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai allegedly married a peepal tree and a banana tree in order to keep the faults in her horoscope from afflicting her human husband, actor Abhishek Bachchan. Furious feminists brought a lawsuit against Rai, claiming that tree-marriage is against the Indian constitution and that by assenting to such a “primitive” practice, Rai is holding back the cause of women’s rights in India.
Fair enough. I will not be the one to debate the constitutionality of Rai’s arboreal nuptials but what harm can a story like this do?
Judging from colonial history, quite a lot: During the British Empire, such reporting had a role in maintaining a moral apartheid between White and Brown subjects of the King.
Katherine Mayo, an American racist who had pretensions to being a journalist, went on a junket to India funded by the British government. (Although she denies that she received the government’s support, her claim is patently false.) The book she wrote in 1927, Mother India, which is allegedly based on reportage from that trip, essentially makes that case that every oddity in Indian culture is related to a sexual pathology. In other words, the British Empire exists to save Indians from their perversions.
I’ll indulge in just one quotation to illustrate her style: “Bengal is the seat of bitterest political unrest — the producer of India’s main crop of anarchists, bomb-throwers and assassins. Bengal is also among the most sexually exaggerated regions of India”¦” Yes, the desire that Indians should be free from British rule, according to Mayo, was simply because they were horny.
During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the greatest threat to British rule in India during the nineteenth century, both colonial authorities and the people back home in Britain were at a loss: If British colonial rule was so enlightened then why would people revolt against it? Predictably, rather than question the premises of colonialism, newspapers and dozens of memoirists devoted themselves to proving the fundamental irrationality of Indians. One of the great conspiracy theories was that messages were being spread in chapatis (flat bread) circulating from village to village. (The Chapati Mystery blog takes its name from this supposed event.) A hundred and fifty years later, we have no idea whether the chapati rumor was actually true, but since we do know that coconuts were circulated as part of a religious practice, it is reasonable to assume that bread was making the rounds for the same reason. Despite its dubiousness, the story of the chapatis exercised a powerful hold on the British imagination in the nineteenth century, as if to say “Indians are so crafty that they even use bread against us.”
Now I am not suggesting that anyone at the BBC today shares Mayo’s warped sense of duty to show the West as superior to the non-West. There is certainly no political motivation to do so after 1947 and unlike Mayo’s reporting we can be reasonably certain that the facts in the BBC’s story are correct.
However, the BBC makes no comment that contextualizes what it means in rural India to marry flora or fauna. The reader is left to come to his or her own conclusion about the facts, as if this were a matter of a familiar event like a building collapsing in London or a legal verdict rendered in New York City. One obvious conclusion from the facts if they lack context is that India is a ridiculous place, in which everyone has the option of taking a non-human spouse. It goes without saying that this isn’t true, but are Western readers who are exposed to so little coverage of South Asia savvy enough to distinguish between certain village practices, which a lot of urban Indians find bizarre, and other cultural practices? Mayo, for her part, discovered (and fabricated) all sorts of oddities and then presented these as normal life, claiming that her book presents the “living facts of India today.” Is this what the BBC is also implicitly doing?
I know some people in the diaspora who become apoplectic when they read these stories because they think it makes India as a whole look bad, and there are plenty of conspiracy theorists who see the ghost of Katherine Mayo haunting the modern newsroom. But newspapers in the developing world engage in the same thing. The Times of India reported the dog marriage story as well as another recent occurrence of a woman marrying a snake in Orissa last year. However, it calls the marriage “unusual” in contrast to the BBC story, which doesn’t contain a single word that marks non-human marriage as out of the ordinary for India. In South Asia, where the urban middle class is often so out of touch with village life, there is an appetite for these stories in English-medium newspapers, which are of course a middle class institution. (In the future, SAJAforum will post some views about rural coverage in Indian newspapers.)
In defense of the BBC, they did run a story this month about a man in Scotland who was arrested after simulating sex with a bicycle. However, unlike their reporting on the developing world, the incident was turned into an opportunity to discuss privacy laws in the UK.
Although “man marries dog” stories are meant to be shallow, it seems to me that they could use a bit more context. That is difficult given space constraints and the media’s emphasis on neutrality, which demands that reporters not “interpret” the news, but we often need more context to understand a strange event as part of someone’s life experience and not something that we can smugly mock. Perhaps for the same reason, the editor of the local newspaper in Sudan that originally ran the story of the goat marriage now regrets that news of the event has traveled across the world.